Monday, July 8, 2013

Getting Comfortable with Uncomfortable Terminology

Christopher Webb
Families of children who struggle with learning and related issues, especially those who receive services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) or Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504), encounter a great deal of unfamiliar vocabulary and acronyms. We've looked at some of those acronyms before, and will spend some time in a future blog on some vocabulary that may be unfamiliar to many parents and students.

Today, however, we are looking at three of the most difficult words that families encounter, words that tend to make both parents and students uncomfortable. By understanding these words and why they are used, we hope to make them less powerful and to enable parents to better understand what they do -- and do not -- mean when used to discuss their child.

One of these terms is co-morbid, which can sound downright, well, morbid. But this term has nothing to do with things that are scary or creepy. In fact, it is an often used medical term to describe conditions that occur together, whether or not they are caused by the same process. So, a middle-aged person who is overweight might have co-morbid high blood pressure and diabetes. The two conditions both impact the health of the individual, but each needs to be considered and treated separately, although weight loss might positively impact both conditions. Children with learning difficulties may have such co-morbid conditions as attention deficit disorder (ADD) or anxiety. If learning difficulties are addressed, the anxiety may subside. Individuals may also have other co-morbid conditions that have no particular impact on their learning -- medical conditions that need treatment but are not related to their learning and/or attention issues.

Another term families can encounter is classified, as in "we will have to have your child classified in order to provide her with services." This term comes from the way that services are provided under the IDEA; students are not eligible to receive special education and related services, supplementary aids and services, and program modifications under an IEP (Individualized Education Program) unless they fall into one of ten categories, which include things like specific learning disabilities, speech or language impairments, or hearing impairments. We often tell parents to think of a classification as a key; it is simply a way to access services and it usually doesn't matter what classification is used (and classification categories can be changed), since the services provided to a classified student are supposed to be unique to that student's individual needs.

Finally, the one term that makes parents most uncomfortable is disability. We don't like it either, but many parents need to deal with it since it is used throughout every law that provides the basis of services to children of all ages who are experiencing challenges with learning or related issues, and that allows older students and adults access to accommodations (such as extended time on the SATs, text-to-speech software provided by their college, or job modifications in the workplace) throughout their lifetime. While the IDEA looks to its classifications to decide what is a disability, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) takes a more functional approach, looking at the impact of "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities" and then very broadly explaining that "major life activities include, but are not limited to, caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working." No matter how you or your student encounter the word "disability" it's important to keep in mind that this term is just Congress's way of setting up a plan to decide who is eligible for services and accommodations. Don't let it define how you or your child view his unique combination of strengths and challenges.

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